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How to Deal with the Tragic Death of Your Dog

A death that is tragic often involves a life that ends shortly or horrifically.

Key points

  • Healing from tragedy involves multiple coping strategies, such as social support, distraction, and meaningful work.
  • Social support is one of the strongest predictors of improved mood and increased hopefulness following psychological trauma.
  • Self-medicating in unhealthy ways, such as with alcohol or drugs, can increase one's sense of hopelessness.

Wisdom can be found in all sorts of places. Having recently watched a YouTube video that included an interview with the late author Maya Angelou, I listened as Oprah Winfrey recounted a story in which she called her friend, the author, devastated about a personal life event. Winfrey recalled Angelou’s response to her sobbing, which included the admonishment, “Stop it.” Angelou’s admonishment continued: “Say ‘Thank you.’"

Recalling the conversation, Winfrey described how she felt stunned at the suggestion, asking “Why?” The legendary author explained to Winfrey that she must first arrest herself and be grateful for the moment she was alive enough to have that experience to begin with.

The lesson Angelou imparted is one that drives the work of many spiritual teachers as they seek to teach the public that there is wisdom and greater peace of mind in living life in the present moment and understanding one's place in the world overall. No lesson is perhaps more urgent or valuable when it comes to dealing with a major emotional crisis or tragedy.

As a psychologist who has practiced for over 20 years and has heard more emotional pain than someone with a different career may imagine, I’m constantly reminded of the extent to which crisis and tragedy embody a core characteristic of the human experience. In times of crisis and tragedy, people turn to coping behaviors in different ways, universally knowing that both negative and positive coping mechanisms are available to them. Most individuals would agree that it is part of the challenge of life to gain a more accurate understanding of which coping strategies are most effective in helping individuals rebound emotionally.

When you think of the crises or tragedies you’ve experienced in your life, which behaviors did you turn to in order to get through the experience? In addition to your own experience with tragedy, you've undoubtedly watched others navigate their own. You may have watched some turn to friends or family members for support, while others turned to drugs or alcohol; perhaps some took weeks or months off from work, while others threw themselves into it to avoid the pain.

How People Process Tragedy

Anecdotally, I can share from my years of clinical experience that one behavior is common among individuals in the wake of a major crisis or tragedy: asking themselves how the tragedy makes sense. They question how the event happened to them and often get lost in a swirl of existential questions. They also start making attributions, relying on blame (as support for a cause-and-effect explanation) or subscribing to a victim identity (as support for the argument that they were actually entitled to a different outcome). In trying to make sense of how horrible things happen, people typically rely on a religious, scientific or emotionally-driven explanation.

The most valuable question to assess about coping with tragic loss may be this one: Which explanation helps someone emotionally survive a tragedy most effectively?

In my own life recently, I experienced what was a personal tragedy for me. I watched as my nearly 2-year-old dog was killed by a car as my family members screamed at the sight and sound of her body being hit with extreme force. Within the larger context, I am but one among millions who are pet lovers and experience every day the unique and precious bond a human can have with an animal. It’s widely acknowledged that relationships with animals and dogs, perhaps especially, are so unique and painful to lose because they provide the rare opportunity for emotional intimacy without the complexity of the emotional challenges that come with human relationships.

As I’ve coped with my loss, I tried to make sense of the tragedy in different ways. I lamented how my little Ellie (pictured) had her whole life ahead of her, then later found myself thinking about far greater tragedies, like parents whose children were victims of mass violence. As I coped, I relied on the usual behaviors one would expect in dealing with a loss: I called family and friends for comfort (increasing my sense of social support); I distracted myself from my thoughts and feelings by engaging in concrete tasks; and I returned to work, reminding myself that being helpful to others will reinforce my sense of purpose. In short, I made myself useful.

Yet by the end of the emotionally painful week, I found myself watching hours of videos by spiritual teachers who offered lessons about how to manage life most effectively. I watched videos with author, physician and medical intuitive Caroline Myss; I turned to video interviews by Oprah Winfrey with experts in various humanistic fields; I listened to podcasts from psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach.

As I was able to return to work after a few days, I asked myself which coping behavior I practiced might have helped me the most to feel functional again. Based on my own self-study, I determined that it was probably the mix of many different behaviors I used. The truth is, I have no objective way of really knowing which one was most helpful.

The Importance of Multiple Coping Mechanisms

As I prepared to write this article, I reviewed extensive bereavement research, and research overwhelmingly shows what I experienced myself: It is the mix of practicing a menu of positive coping mechanisms – not just one magical ingredient – that helps a person cope with grief.

According to a recent publication by the National Institute of Mental Health (2020), the following strategies are highlighted as being most effective: spending time with supportive loved ones and trusted friends (because having social support is positively correlated with recovery from psychological trauma); avoiding alcohol and other drugs (which could otherwise add to feelings of depression and hopelessness); and maintaining normal routines for meals, exercise, and sleep (activities which are necessary for daily healthy physiological functioning).

I can confirm from anecdotal experience with thousands of patients over the years that the impact of social support is among the most powerful healers. If you are someone who is coping with the traumatic loss of your dog or another pet, take the suggestions listed in this article and make a conscious effort to connect with people or even other pets who care for you. Part of what makes the loss of a relationship so painful is the sense that you are rendered more alone than you were before, so seek out interactions that remind you how connected you truly are.

Finally, remember that you are not the only person who has experienced a painful loss. Educate and support yourself by reading articles like this and others about coping with grief, and review videos that are focused on recovery from sadness and loss. Taking action will provide proof to you that you aren't simply waiting to feel better; you actually have a plan to make that happen.

References

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. (2020). Coping with Traumatic Events. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/coping-with-traumatic-events/index.shtml.

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